Photo of Rachel Lerner
Dr. Rachel Lerner

Rachel Lerner is the Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education.  She holds an EdD from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and double B.A. degrees from Barnard College and Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in on two of our classes: Dr. Bruce Powell’s class on Educational Philosophy and Bill Cohen’s Teaching Jewish Holidays. The philosophy class was discussing Buber’s seminal work I and Thou and its implications for education...

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in on two of our classes: Dr. Bruce Powell’s class on Educational Philosophy and Bill Cohen’s Teaching Jewish Holidays. The philosophy class was discussing Buber’s seminal work I and Thou and its implications for education. Buber describes two different kinds of relationships, that of I and It which are between separate objects and that of I and Thou where there is a living relationship without defined limits between two beings. The students created a Buberian mission statement where a school would be “making validating listeners and thinkers leading to the ineffable.” What would it look like if students really listened to each other in a way that validated the other children and teachers? How could we bring about this kind of radical respect? How do we build meaningful relationships between all of the people at our schools?

This kind of radical respect is often at odds with educators' need to teach the curriculum. Well-meaning educators can overlook the emotional needs of the child because there is too much math and history to cover. 

In Teaching Jewish Holidays, Rabbi Tzvi Hametz, Director of Innovation and Technology at Maimonides Academy, guest taught about Chanukah. After guiding us in creating circuits using pieces of paper, metal tape, LED lights, and a small battery, Tzvi taught us some Jewish texts. The rabbis argue about whether or not you are allowed to light a candle from another Chanukah candle, ultimately deciding no and leading to the institution of the shamash candle.  Each candle’s light has its own significance AND there is importance in seeing the light of all of the candles of each night.  

How do we appreciate the light of each of our students and the light that the class emits by coming together as a whole? What if we really truly tried to bring Buber’s I-Thou relationships into our classrooms? What if the most important outcomes of a lesson were the relationships built between children and teacher and honoring each child’s unique gifts? How do we make our students feel respected and safe in a classroom that inspires mutual respect for their teacher? 

It is not about making the child so central that any behavior is tolerated. Rather, it is about creating a classroom environment where respecting and honoring all people- children and adults- is core. We need to start with the assumption that each of us have strengths and as educators we must help our students uncover and share them with the world. We will be better- both individually and collectively- by honoring and empowering each other.